Comprehensive Exam

While preparation for the Comprehensive Examination may begin as early as admission to candidacy,
serious work on it should start at least six months before you plan to sit for the exam. You should
begin by meeting with the DGS to discuss your plans and to get advice on your reading lists and committee.
At this stage, you should  identify the five faculty members who will serve as your Comprehensive Exam committee and
decide on your Comprehensive Exam areas, while also beginning to revise the paper you intend to
submit as part of the Portfolio.

Once a student has met all eligibility requirements (see the paragraph on Eligibility below) and
has received the DGS go-ahead to begin preparing for comps, he or she should enroll in three 2 s.h.
independent studies (selecting appropriate courses from the ENGL:7000-level series, one with
each of his or her comprehensive exam area directors). Please note that the department does not
offer independent study credit for reading groups. Enrollment in these independent studies may be concurrent
or staggered over semesters, provided that the  student hits the 60 s. h. mark by the end of the semester
in which he or she takes the Comprehensive Exam. Students should discuss expectations for exam
preparation with their area directors, and these expectations should be summarized on the online
independent study approval form, which should be approved by the exam director and DGS in the first weeks of the
semester (see Graduate Webforms at
Students often prefer to assemble  various components of the portfolio concurrently and over the summer months,
when they may not be  enrolled— the six independent study credits may thus be regarded as a tally of work
completed toward comps.

Reading for the Examination and crafting of the Portfolio (which includes writing the introduction,
developing the two course syllabi, drafting the five questions, writing the review essay and
annotated bibliography, and final revision of the article) will usually take about six months. No
later than three weeks before the date of the oral exam, the completed Portfolio, including the
signed and approved reading lists and article and the two completed checklists, should be turned in
to the GPC for final approval by the DGS; at this time you should also contact the GPC to schedule
your oral examination.
The department will provide free photocopying of five copies of the
Portfolio for all students who meet the three-week deadline.

Approximate Timetable for the Comprehensive Exam

Six months in advance of oral exam:

•     meet with DGS to discuss comprehensive areas, preliminary reading lists, and composition of
your committee

•     meet with GPC (Cherie Hansen-Rieskamp, 308D EPB) to discuss Short Hours Form and future
course registration

•     choose three faculty members to supervise the portfolio:

o  1 member--historical period (becomes the exam director)
o 1 member--special area
o 1 member--article

•     begin work on the portfolio
•     begin reading, writing annotations, and revising the article to be submitted as part of the
portfolio (accomplished by enrolling in three 2-s. h. independent study courses, one with each area

Notice: If applying for an MA en passant, please contact the GPC (Cherie Hansen-Rieskamp, 308D EPB or
319-335-0440) at the beginning of the examination semester to discuss the Graduate College Guidelines.

Three months in advance:
•     choose two at-large members of the exam committee
•     continue working on the Portfolio

Three weeks in advance:

•     turn in Eligibility and Portfolio checklists to the DGS
•     submit completed Portfolio for approval by DGS (be sure the Portfolio includes signed and
approved reading lists and article)
•     contact GPC to file paperwork ("Request for Examination" and "Plan of Study" forms) with
Graduate College, to photocopy five copies of the portfolio (optional), and to schedule a time and
place for the Oral Exam.

Two weeks in advance:

•     distribute copies of the Portfolio to all five committee members, preferably in electronic

Comprehensive Portfolio and Examination



The Comprehensive Examination is taken after a student has fulfilled the foreign language, seminar,
and distribution requirements, and no later than five semesters after admission to candidacy
(although if a student has fewer than 24 s. h. of total graduate credit at the end of the semester
of qualification, he or she is allowed five semesters after the completion of 24 s. h.). Students
are eligible to take the examination during the semester in which they will have completed 60 s. h.
of work. Of those 60 s. h., no more than 6 s. h. should be in Independent Study or S/U courses. The
remaining 54 s. h. should be in regular graded courses at the 3000-level or above, at least 30 s.
h. of which must be ENGL courses at the 5000-level or above.

1. Coverage: The Comprehensive Examination contains three parts, each under the supervision of one
of three core members of the committee. These parts carry equal weight and represent the
culmination of work done over a period of time in different courses as well as independent work
done especially to prepare for the examination. The three parts of the examination are as follows:

a. Historical Period: This part of the examination requires broad knowledge of writings in at least
three different genres from a historical period of at least 100 years to be selected by the
student. Examples of historical periods in recent Portfolios include:

•    English Literature before 1500
•    Early Modern English, 1546-1667
•    Nineteenth-Century British
•    American Literature 1914-present

b. Special area: This part of the examination requires specific knowledge of the literature,
criticism, and/or theory that constitute a particular field of study. This area, which must be
demonstrably distinct from the Historical Period and Article, may be a second historical period, a
literary genre, a body of theory, a major author or group of authors, a theme or topic, writing
theory and/or pedagogy, or an interdisciplinary subject. Like the Historical Period, the Special
Area allows candidates to develop and demonstrate their grasp of a field in which they hope to
write and teach.

c. Article: This part of the examination is a 25-35 page essay of publishable quality written in
consultation with a faculty member, approved by that faculty member and submitted as part of the
Portfolio. The article might start from scratch or begin with a paper written for a previous
course, but in its final form it should elaborate a sophisticated critical position with respect to
a literary theme, issue, author, period, text, or group of texts and should ideally become part of
the dissertation.

The file cabinet in 308A EPB contains portfolios from past Comprehensive Exams for student review.
In the top drawer, you will find an index to the portfolios, sorted by area and date. Feel free to
make photocopies of the portfolios, but please do not remove them from the building. Below are
three examples of Comprehensive Examination areas, offered for the purposes of illustration:

Sample Portfolio 1
Historical Period: English Literature before 1500
Special Area: Violence and Trauma in English Literature before 1500
Article: “Chaucer in Revolt: Violence in 1381 in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale”

Sample Portfolio 2
Historical Period: Early Modern English, 1511-1667
Special Area: Shakespeare Studies: Spying Out Rumors of Authorship  Article: “Puns, Spies, and
Hidden Intents: Quibbling Authorship in King Lear”

Sample Portfolio 3
Historical Period: American Literature, 1914-present
Special Area: The Beat Goes On: Women Writers and the Beat Canon
Article: “Faulkner’s Corpse Bride: Revenging the Ravaged and Queering the Funeral”

2. The Committee: The Comprehensive Examination committee consists of five tenure-track faculty
members, at least two of whom must be tenured faculty. The directors of the three principal areas
of the examination, who must have appointments in the English Department, will form the core of
this committee. In addition, each candidate asks two faculty members to serve as at-large
examiners. One of these at-large members must be from the English Department, while the other can
be either from English or another department within the University of Iowa.

3. Reading Lists: In consultation with the directors of the Historical Period and Special Area,
students will prepare two lists of readings for the examination. The Historical Period list should
consist of 70-100 items covering 100 years and at least three different genres; a small number of
the items (usually no more than ten) should be key historical and/or critical works about the
period. The Special Area reading list should include 35-40 items, and is typically heavier on
critical and theoretical texts.


The Portfolio consists of five sections: a five to seven page Introduction, a 25-35 page article of
publishable quality, five substantial questions based on the Historical Period list, a ten to
fifteen page review essay discussing seven to ten texts accompanied by an annotated bibliography of
each one of the remaining items from the Special Area list, and two course syllabi. A detailed
description of these five sections follows.

Introduction: The Introduction to the Portfolio is designed to provide a five to seven page
overview of the materials that follow, showing the relations among them. Because the Introduction
represents the candidate's own sense of the interconnections among the various parts of the
Portfolio, it does not require prior approval by the faculty members serving on the candidate's
committee, although the candidate is free to seek their advice while drafting the Introduction.

Historical Period Questions: The Historical Period list should consist of 70 to 100 texts. As a way
of coming to terms with the fundamental issues animating the chosen historical period, the
candidate should formulate five broadly conceived questions written in consultation with the area's
director. The director must formally approve the questions by signing the Portfolio checklist

Special Area Review Essay and Annotated Bibliography: The Special Area is examined via a ten to
fifteen page review essay, which delineates the area through key primary and/or secondary texts.
The essay should examine seven to ten texts from the reading list of thirty-five to forty items.
Each one of the remaining texts from the Special Area list should be annotated separately in a full
paragraph (250-300 words), following standard bibliographic form (i.e., citing author, title, and
publication information for each item). The purpose of the review essay is to allow the candidate
to articulate important issues or patterns linking the texts in the Special Area. It should result
in a working document that might be the basis for future investigations, including the
dissertation. The purpose of the annotated bibliography is to provide a detailed synopsis of texts
that can then be referred to in writing the dissertation or in preparing for job interviews. The
Special Area list, review essay, and annotated bibliography are written by the candidate in
consultation with the area director. The area director’s signature on the Special Area list indicates that
the review essay and annotated bibliography are ready to go forward for defense at the oral exam.

Article: The Article should develop a sophisticated and original argument with respect to a
literary theme, issue, author, period, text, or groups of texts in twenty-five to thirty-five
pages. It should be of publishable quality and follow an acceptable format (e.g., MLA or Chicago)
for citation of sources. The Article may represent new work, but more often develops out of a paper
originally written for a course and subsequently revised under the guidance of its director, who is
usually the faculty member for whom the paper was first written. With the help of comments and
advice offered by the committee during the oral exam, the candidate should plan to submit a revised
version of the article to a scholarly journal for consideration. The Article must be signed and
approved by the area's director before inclusion in the portfolio. Ideally, the Article should form
the basis of the student’s dissertation, though this is not required.

Syllabi: The pedagogical component of the Comprehensive Portfolio is demonstrated by two course
syllabi designed for courses the candidate might teach, each course drawing upon one of the main
areas of the exam   and distributed with materials for that area. Out of the Historical Period's
focus on a broad range of texts, the candidate should design a lower-level survey course for
undergraduate majors. For the Special Area the candidate should create a syllabus for an
upper-level undergraduate course. Because constructing the syllabi for these courses indicates the
candidate's ability to synthesize research with teaching, the pedagogical section should not be
undertaken with close supervision by a committee member, but instead offer testimony to the
candidate's independence. Organization of the Portfolio: In order to help your committee locate
items in your Portfolio, it is useful to paginate continuously and to provide a Table of Contents
at the beginning. In most cases, the Portfolio should assemble its items in this order:

•     Title Page
•     Table of Contents
•     Introduction
•     Historical Area List (signed by its director)
•     Five Questions
•     Lower-level Survey Course Syllabus
•     Special Area List (signed by its director)
•     Review Essay
•     Annotated Bibliography
•     Upper-level Specialized Course Syllabus
•     Article (signed by its director)

Oral Exam: The Portfolio should be given to the Comprehensive Examination Committee at least two
weeks before the two-hour oral exam. Because the exam begins with the Historical Period, the
director of that area directs the exam. (To clarify a possible point of confusion for some
students: It is often the case that director of the Historical Period does not go on to direct the
dissertation, since any one of the three core exam committee members is well situated to serve in
that capacity.) Once the committee is assembled, the student leaves the room while members share
their views on the quality of the Portfolio and the questions they would most like to ask the
student. Then the student is called back into the room for the exam.

Fifty minutes of the oral examination will be set aside to examine the Historical Period. Another
fifty minutes will review the Portfolio's additional sections. Although each examiner may raise
questions about any portion of the Portfolio and reading lists, the committee will start the exam
by asking the candidate to respond to one of the five prepared questions about the Historical
Period; thereafter, any of the remaining four questions, as well as all the items on the Historical
Period list and the proposed survey course are open to discussion. Discussion then moves  to the
Special Area, as the committee inquires about the texts chosen for review, those annotated from the
list of thirty-five to forty entries, and those contributing to the advanced course proposed from
the area. Finally, the discussion of the Article could productively lead to advice on publication.
Students are strongly advised not to  read from notes during the oral exam.

At the conclusion of the oral examination, the student leaves the room while committee members
evaluate his or her performance. Members prepare a report on the exam for The Graduate College by
voting "satisfactory," "reservations," or "unsatisfactory." The committee then calls the student
back into the room to convey the   results of the vote. The Graduate College Manual of Rules and
Regulations states,
"In the event of a report with  two or more votes of ‘Reservations,’ the
actions required of the student, by the committee, that are necessary to  correct

the deficiencies must be recorded and submitted to the Graduate College with the examination report
 form. Copies of the written statement of necessary actions should be kept by: the appropriate
departmental  executive, the chair of the examination committee, and the student. The statement
must specify the time allowed  for completion of the aforementioned actions. The language
describing the actions must be specific.” Two "unsatisfactory" votes constitute a failure of the
examination. At the option of the department, a student may repeat the examination once, but only
once, and not within the same term. By regulation of the Graduate    College, a student has five
years, following successful completion of the comprehensive exam, in which to finish   all
substantive requirements for the Ph.D. degree. Please note, too, that the Graduate College does not
permit the comprehensive examination and the defense of the dissertation to be scheduled in the
same semester.

Graduate College Post-Comprehensive Research Award: In the semester following the one in which they
pass their Comprehensive Exam, students may apply for this competitive award, which provides
recipients with a semester of protected and supported time to pursue their research. For details
about eligibility, applications procedures, and the terms of the award, see